Friday, December 13th, 2013

Striving For Obfuscation: Sangram Majumdar’s Strange New Turn

Sangram Majumdar: Peel at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects and?PROJECTOR

November 20 to December 22, 2013
208 Forsyth Street, between Houston and Stanton streets
New York City, ?917-861-7312

(Projector: 237 Eldridge Street, between Houston and Stanton streets)


Sangram Majumdar, Step Right Up, 2013.  Oil on linen, 78 x 84 inches.  Courtesy of Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects
Sangram Majumdar, Step Right Up, 2013. Oil on linen, 78 x 84 inches. Courtesy of Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects

The title of Sangram Majumdar’s exhibition of recent paintings, on view at two locations on the Lower East Side, is “Peel.” The appellation seems to ask viewers to look beyond the surface to get at the paintings. But when they do so they are likely to find little “there” there.

The Calcutta–born artist received his MFA from Indiana University, a graduate program famous for its emphasis on figurative painting, and true to his schooling, previous exhibitions presented still lifes, landscapes, interiors and portraits rooted in direct observation. Using a perceptual process that incorporated exacting measurements and finely calibrated tonal ranges, Majumdar’s earlier artworks recalled realist canvases by Antonio López García and Euan Uglow. In his 2008 interview with online magazine Neoteric Art he declared that, “As a painter, my concerns really revolve around form, space and the specificity of the experience.”  Making straightforward paintings with rich colors and decorative patterns, Majumdar’s canvases packed a punch.

But in “Peel,” Majumdar’s third solo show at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, paintings are left in an ambiguous state between representation and abstraction. Though works here contain discernable imagery, scenes are not fully described. Loosely sketched depictions of hard-to-recognize objects are out of scale and strangely lighted. Majumdar’s canvases are deliberately evasive.

“Torque,” 2013, for instance, the first painting greeting gallery visitors at Forsyth Street, is a canvas comprised of gray and brown stripes. The composition is based on Majumdar’s own studio storage rack, where cardboard encased artworks, seen from the side, lean against one another. Rendered with a subdued palette, a hint of the studio beyond is visible between the wrapped paintings.

Sangram Majumdar, Interrupted, 2013.  Oil on linen, 30 x 24 inches.  Courtesy of Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects
Sangram Majumdar, Interrupted, 2013. Oil on linen, 30 x 24 inches. Courtesy of Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects

“Interrupted,” 2013, is a painting of a painting partially covered in paper and scotch tape, a trompe-l’oeil with a painterly touch. Though real-world surface textures and light are naturalistically rendered, this strange object with no clear meaning expresses only the laborious execution of a concept-driven exercise.

“Paper Tree,” 2013, is a visual pun. Here lime green, blue and purple triangle papers were affixed to the wall in the shape of a tree and then painted. Majumdar’s composition, reminiscent of Ab Ex canvases by Jack Tworkov, is also an idea-driven work: a realist painting of an abstract symbol of the natural world, referencing both abstraction and representation.

Illustrating obscurity, a reclining female figure, lit from below, holds a mask over the right half of her face in “Look, See,” 2013. The figure’s left arm dissolves into brown background at the wrist while the striped patterning on a red dress, started but not finished, indicates a hesitancy to say too much.

At Projector, the second exhibition space around the block, two large oils reference interior spaces. “Unbuilt to Suit,” 2013, features a violet-colored staircase, the only identifiable form in the picture, leaned over in a glowing red room. “Step Right Up,” 2013, a seven-foot-wide canvas, looks like an attic space, with a chair that is stacked precariously. An essay in the exhibition catalog explains these scenes were inspired by a broken dollhouse Majumdar rescued from the trash heap, “rooms caught in the turbulence of disorganization, with all the sense of their original small scale removed.”

Majumdar has shown himself to be an ambitious painter with tremendous ability, but in this latest body of work he seems to be striving for obfuscation rather than clarity. In doing so he fails to realize, perhaps, that urgency in a work of art springs from unguarded, direct expression. In an effort to make smarter, more complicated pictures, Majumdar sacrifices the emotional impact of his earlier work.